Author: Helen Oyeyemi
Finished on: 10 April 2016
Where did I get this book: Salts Mill bookshop
This is the first of Helen Oyeyemi’s books that I have read. But before even starting it, I fell a little bit in love with her watching the BBC’s Being The Brontes. The premise of the programme was that Oyeyemi, along with Lucy Mangan and Martha Kearney, travelled to Haworth to explore the lives of the Bronte sisters, and each attempted to make the case for the superiority of their favourite sister.
Oyeyemi’s favourite is Emily (which means, of course, that she is correct) and in the name of trying to understand her hero better, she spent the night alone communing with ghosts in the parsonage; she discussed Heathcliff by the light of a bonfire at night at Top Withins. In short, she did everything I would have done. (Or, more likely, that I like to think I’d do, but in reality would have scared the pants off me). So (even though she didn’t seem to agree with my view that Cathy is more demonic than Heathcliff) I was definitely inclined to love a book by this lady.
But I’m pretty sure I would have loved Boy, Snow, Bird whatever. Even if my first experience of Oyeyemi had been her burning copies of Wuthering Heights and shouting: “The character of Nelly is not consistent throughout the story.”
I feel like I should have some kind of claxon to sound when I read a book this good, especially by a new writer (to me). This is one of those occasions where the book buying ban really stings. God, I want to read everything she has ever written.
There is a huge amount going on in Boy, Snow, Bird. An incisive and interesting exploration of race, and the racism within races. What it means to be a woman; what it means to be a man; what it means to be blonde; what it means to be white; what it means to be a child; what it means to be black; what it means to be different shades of black and white. Oyeyemi’s writing is just so bloody good that she can take on these huge themes, and make them feel entirely personal and encapsulated in her quite frankly outstanding characters and their experiences.
There is magic. There are talking spiders, and people who don’t appear in mirrors. But the magic doesn’t make this world feel any less real. I’m pretty sure I could hear spiders talk when I was a little girl (actually in my case it was worms and woodlice); she is fully inhabiting the children who help to narrate her story, and embracing their broader way of experiencing the world.
What I loved most of all, however, were the three main female characters of the title: Boy, Snow and Bird. They all have first person narration of the story at some point, even if just in epistolary form, and their voices, while perhaps a little similar to each other, are so different to anything else I have read it is beautifully refreshing.
I have been trying to put my finger on what it is about these characters. And I think it boils down to the fact that none of them give the slightest thought to whether the things they say and do will make people like them, or approve of them. Ever. It never occurs to them to care what people think of them. And it’s not mentioned at all, or considered a noteworthy aspect of their characters. Maybe that’s unusual in female characters; maybe that’s unusual in any character given first person narration of a story. But their voices are so clear and so convincing it is wonderful, and it feels empowering just to read them.
There is an awful lot to love in this book. But these characters were the highlight; I could’ve stayed in their company forever.
On this book buying trip to Hay-on-Wye we’re all going on for my fifty-fourth birthday, I am going to buy the complete works of this lady. Apparently she’s 31 and has written six novels already. Imagine how much there’ll be to catch up on by then.